Friday, October 18, 2013

Eels, Fish and Animals from Early Bestiaries on The Bayeux Tapestry

by Carol McGrath

Since this week sees the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings (14th October 1066) I have returned to The Bayeux Tapestry which is one of the most important sources for any writer concerned with the period of the Norman Conquest. The Bayeux Tapestry is the dramatic story of the Norman Conquest set out in threads, stitched by contemporaries and displayed in Bayeux in the heart of victorious Normandy. It is seventy metres in length and barely a metre wide. Interestingly, it is in the margins that we see the tapestry's subtext and these margins are consequently of particular interest to the historian and the writer of historical fiction of this period because they often give clues to character.

The Treacherous Sands of the River Couesnon
Depictions in the border scenes on the Tapestry consist of paired animals and representations of fables. Only in the lower borders do you see extended diagonals separating out stories and scenes below the main narrative. One might think these echo the narrative above in parody but they actually often contain extraneous pieces that are unrelated to the main panel above. At other times, they are part of it.

Creatures seem deliberately chosen and arranged using moralised traits and values assigned by bestiary tradition. This is an exciting interpretation as bestiaries tend to belong to the first quarter of the 12th century and the tapestry dates back to the 1070s. Moralised animal literature was available in earlier sources which include the second century text Physiologus which is a later model for animal imagery and St Ambrose's Hexameron from the 4th century which offers a commentary on Creation as it is written in Genesis. The Canterbury designers certainly had access to such texts as 11th century English manuscripts from Canterbury suggest. Later bestiaries drew on these early sources.

One border line of embroidery of particular interest falls below the main narrative scene where Harold Godwinson is depicted pulling two men out of the quick sand by the River Coueson near Dol in Brittany. He is on a Breton Campaign with Duke William whilst a 'guest' at William's Norman court  He carries a man on his back and tugs the other with his wrist and he is holding a shield. Beneath his feet in the border the embroiderers place six eels. These swim from right to left chased by a man who is reaching for the tail of one of the eels with his left hand. He has a weapon in his right hand. An animal gnaws at his feet. This is attacked by another quadruped. A centaur is holding the second creature by the tail. Two fish appear to the left of the eels and they are connected to each other by a cord from their mouths. A dog tooth effect is created throughout the scene by opposed diagonal lines.

Could this scene comment on Harold's character? Now, such a comment could be interpreted as pro or against and it may be a character comment reflecting circumstance. Harold seems courageous , virtuous and noble but could he be slippery as an eel? Is it a witty scene and does the arrangement of figures imply that the scene can be read as a whole? 

To take the bestiary tradition maybe it is possible to shed light on Harold's character as perceived by the Tapestry's designers and emboiderers bearing in mind that this could be subjective. They could be poking fun at the Norman conquerors or they could be saying something important about Harold's traits or both. He was a war lord determined to be a survivor and may have needed wiles to hold a kingdom against his enemies. Moralised animal tradition suggests that here eels are not just eels but contain the potential for duplicity. Added to double headed serpents decorating the upper border when Harold and William set out for Mont-St-Michel and the two reliquaries that Harold touches later to double the strength of his oath to recognise William as a future king one wonders about the pairings in the borders.

The Oath, paired caskets!

Bestiary Interpretations of eels and fish and strange beasts


They are mouth to mouth and associated with early spring. The Breton campaign took place in March. Small fish are the object of greed of the stronger fish. The weaker the fish the more open it is to predation. Some fish consume each other. Violence is increased spontaneously in fish as in us, arising not from nature but from greed. So the fish is made into a sign, Pisces, so that we can see them in the sins of our ways and we should avoid their example lest someone stronger might be offered as a living example of the violence of one who is more powerful. Was Harold foolish to prey on William? Could this be one interpretation using the bestiary's 'insight' or perhaps William is preying on England's representative. Could that be the other way to read fish below the border in this scene?


The snakes' origin is in the mud. We discover that from the bestiary tradition, when it is seized it is so smooth that the moment you tighten your grip on it the quicker it slips away! So what is being commented on here?

The Recumbent Man

He is English. We can see his beard and his moustache. The eels face away from him. They fly from his knife. He is amongst the creatures and linked by touch to all of them. It could of course have a dual interpretation. Harold tried valiantly to chase William from England's shores.

The First Quadruped

It is probably a wolf. Moralised, the wolf is the devil who circles the sheepfold of the church's faithful to afflict and destroy their souls. We can see Harold as an oath breaker or we can also acknowledge the determination of the reforming church to bring England's church into line with reformed continental Europe. This motivation for Rome's support for William's invasion cannot be ignored.

The Bird

An eagle is associated with royalty. It could even suggest Harold's right to the throne or was it William's right, or both?

The Second Quadruped

It touches the tail of the wolf, not holding on to it. It watches the man seize the wolf's foot in its mouth. It has associations with lion motifs on the borders by virtue of its colour. It has a tail and stripes on its back that do not appear on lions elsewhere. It could be another wolf. Its attempt to restrain the man, possibly Harold, is fruitless. He will break his oath to William and set in motion the events leading to Conquest and forthcoming devastation.

The Centaur

It is half man, half donkey , not the usual horse-man with a bow. Its two part nature according to Physiologus suggests derangement, double tongue, treacherous, deformed and half-wild. The ass is slow and obstinate for no reason. Is this another slight to Harold's character? However there is also the duality of the rational and the bestial. The reversal from left to right appears only in one other border scene and sometimes in the main panels, just like a theatre set. This movement creates a pause so that a viewer can absorb the impact of the scene before going on. It also has a thematic element because an interpretation of the border depictions may imply that Harold goes against orders King Edward might have given him when he travelled to Normandy in 1064/5. It was unwise. It could suggest he may also have gone against God's will.

In conclusion, the Tapestry's borders often provide a comment on Harold's actions as well as the main scenes which depict the events leading to The Norman Conquest and the Invasion itself. They are very clever and often ambiguous suggesting dual interpretation depending on what the viewer is looking for. As Andrew Bridgeford points out in his marvellous book listed below there is a hidden history lurking in the Bayeux Tapestry if only we know how to look at it.

nuns stitching The Tapestry


The Bayeux Tapestry, New Approaches, Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2011.
1066, The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry by Andrew Bridgeford, Harper Perennial, 2004.


Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife, first novel in a trilogy about the noble women of Hastings, published by Accent Press and available from Amazon UK and USA and all bookshops by order. 


  1. Just as an aside re the borders: I went on a walking tour lecture of Saxon London a few years back (to my shame I can't recall the name of the professor who took the tour :-( but he had a very good theory about the "ghost boats" that are depicted in the lower borders beneath the Westminster scenes. It has commonly been suggested that these boats are a portent of things to come i.e. the fleet being built in Normandy, but he pointed out that this was winter - when the boats are pulled up on shore to preserve the keels, Therefore, to anyone at that time the indication that this was winter with the boats ashore, would be obvious.

  2. Oh thank you Helen. I love that and think it logical too.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.